I was prompted twice in the last few days to think about one very particular childhood moment, one that is usually filled with equal amounts of excitement and fear, as childhood's end becomes a definable reality instead of a hazy someday, impossible to clearly view in prior years. That moment unfolds as a 17- or 18-year-old is finishing up high school who now must make some very grown up choices with very real impacts: What Do I Do Now? Although I am very far past that time in my own life, I have no trouble recalling the anxiety-filled black hole feeling that I had as I asked that question of myself, and when others asked it of me. "What are you going to do? Where are you going to school? Where are you working?" The pressure was horrible, because I didn't have any answers. The only thing I knew for sure is what I did Not Want To Do, and that was go to college. I was so sure of this that I didn't even bother to take the SAT, never met with a school counselor, never looked at one single college brochure. No. More. School! We'll revisit that decision a little later in this post.

I spent a few minutes this past weekend chatting with a couple of friendly and intelligent girls from a local Catholic girls' school who were standing by me as we all waited patiently, staking out a front spot at the Moore Theater's stage. The two friends were soon to leave to two different out-of-state colleges, sad to leave friends and family behind, but hopeful that good new experiences would be coming. One of the girls spoke of how her college requires her to declare a major immediately: "I don't know what to put down! I have no idea what I want to do! I don't know how I am supposed to pick something when I've never even done anything like any of these careers!" She smiled as she bubbled her thoughts to the surface to me, a stranger with a sympathetic Mom-type countenance, but her angst was easily felt. Her family only had so much money, she continued, and had already told her how important it was to graduate in four years.

Of course, me as a Sympathetic Mom-Type Stranger was compelled to give her some advice. Don't worry too too much about all this picking-a-major thing, I counseled like a counselor, it's normal that you wouldn't know what you want to do yet. You aren't going to know what is right for you until you take a good breadth of courses, then you can begin to know what you'd like to do, what you can do, and what you should do. And if you want to graduate in four years, take summer courses. Universities are notorious for making required courses unavailable at the times you need them. They like students to hang around more. The most important thing about college, I soapboxed on, was to open your mind to all kinds of topics and ways of thinking and the experiences and knowledge of others. The girl nodded vigorously, as a Catholic girls'-school graduate would regarding that statement. As the first band at the Moore took the stage, we turned our attention to them. Lovely, good kids, I thought. They will be fine.

My second prompt on this subject was found today as I scanned my news feed. This delightful New York Times article on the value of taking a "gap year" before college is written by another teenager, Gregory Kristof, who is the son of Pulitzer Prize-winning author and journalist Nicholas Kristof. The young Kristof is spending his year studying Chinese in China and will finish up by studying Spanish in Peru, but the experiences he is having outside the classroom are what builds the boy into the man. He's a fortunate kid; it is without doubt that his gap year will make him a better student and a wiser person as he returns to the U.S. and begins college.

I love the idea of the "gap year," and I wish all kids would consider taking one before heading to school. Not every family is going to be able to fund a generous world-traveling year, but there are programs that are far more affordable (or that actually pay something!). And frankly, even if a high school grad can't go any further than his own home town, taking a year to work, volunteer, learn how to manage money and time independent of parents will serve them so well. How many teens do you know (and maybe this was you, too) who bombed out of college or did far worse than they should've because they were immature and under-prepared for the responsibility? A lot. What good does this do anyone? College should never be just an extension of the holding-pen that high schools often can be. College can only deliver its best value to those who are fully prepared to be there; otherwise, the Not-Ready-For-Prime-Time student ends up with useless grades, substantial debt for small gains, a meaningless piece of paper, and long regrets.

So, what did I, Little Miss No More School, end up doing? Traveling, for the first time; a very valuable thing. Made music. Took and sold photos, for very little money. Sold bootleg cassettes like a gangsta, for very little money. Took a less-than-minimum wage job because I didn't even dare try for better without a degree. Suffered the dismissals of those who, when they found out I hadn't been to college, assumed I was stupid and unskilled. Moved from Wisconsin to Arizona to Illinois to Colorado, hoping something brilliant might happen to me that would take away the nagging and depressing feeling that I hadn't done right by myself at all.

And in those years, nine of them after I graduated from high school, I started to grow up. Nothing was going to come my way unless I built it myself, and I had to stop avoiding all school because my previous school experiences had been so lousy. It was time to go to college, to at the very least be able to say that I didn't run away from hard work, that I could meet whatever it was I feared head on. I needed that time to be able to succeed. Any earlier would have been a complete failure. I wasn't able as a kid to commit to school; as an adult, I could. I did well, and graduated with honors in six years, slowed in pace a bit after dear CouchTeen was born in the middle of my university time. Sixteen months after my son was born, my father died. He didn't live to see me graduate, but I think he felt I was on the right track and was glad that I had chosen to go.

There isn't one right way to grow up or one right path to what makes someone a "success." Time and experience are proven wisdom-bringers, and to offer this option to high schoolers who are worrying that they are lost and will remain lost, can be a tremendous gift to give them. Step back, and consider the gap.